Much of the research undertaken by UJ Geology relates to Economic Geology and Geometallurgy, undertaken under the banner of the PPM Research Group with Professors Nic Beukes and Fanus Viljoen as co-leaders, although there is also a strong research component on other geological topics that have importance in understanding Earth history. The Department has a professorial Chair of Geometallurgy funded by the South African Department of Science and Technology where Professor Fanus Viljoen and his group investigate metallurgical aspects of important geological deposits including gold, platinum, chrome, coal and diamonds
UJ Geology has a very strong international collaboration component and staff members regularly work with and visit research collaborators in Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, DRC (Congo), Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Namibia, Russia, Scotland, Sweden, UK and Zimbabwe,. There is also extensive national collaboration within South Africa, between UJ Geology and the Council for Geoscience, NECSA, various national museums and universities.
STAFF RESEARCH ACTIVITIES
Professor Nic Beukes was appointed on contract as Research Professor in 2011 after retiring at the end of 2010 with 41 years of full-time appointment in the Department. He is primarily a field geologist, specializing in sedimentology and stratigraphy, with emphasis on understanding the origin of iron and manganese ore deposits and the nature of surface environments on early earth which includes the history of atmospheric oxygen and climate changes in the middle
Archaean to early Palaeoproterozoic. He has worked extensively on iron and manganese formations all over the world and also studied the genetic and sequence stratigraphy of siliciclastic strata of the Witwatersrand and Pongola basins, depofacies in early Precambrian carbonate platform successions, early Precambrian laterite profiles and paleosols and the nature of post-Gondwana land surfaces and associated soil profiles.
CURRENTLY HE IS INVOLVED WITH FOUR
Manganese deposits that developed prior to the rise of atmospheric oxygen at
approximately 2350 million years ago and the information these deposits may hold for the history of atmospheric oxygen and oxygenic photosynthesis in the earliest part of Earth History.
- An evaluation of the iron ore potential of the Asbesheuwels area in Northern Cape Province. The project focuses mainly on medium to low-grade iron ore resources that could possibly be upgraded when the time arrives that the high-grade ores that are currently mined become exhausted.
- The provenance or source terrains of selected sedimentary successions in
southern Africa that, in combination with palaeomagnetic studies, could assist in palaeogeographic reconstructions of ancient continents as far back as the Archaean. Such reconstructions are not only important for unravelling Earth History
but also for Exploration Geology in the quest to predict extensions of important
known ore deposits in southern Africa that may have become fragmented through
plate-tectonic movement and may now be located on other continents and viceversa.
- A comparison of the geology and genesis of iron formations and associated highgrade iron ore deposits in southern Africa, India and Brazil. The main focus is to try and develop improved exploration models for finding covered (blind) new iron ore
The research interests of Professor Bruce Cairncross encompass coal geology and southern African geoheritage. His coal research involves investigating the origin and formation of South Africa’s coal deposits from the standpoint of how the coal seams formed 280 million years ago and what sort of environments were associated with the ancient peat swamps that ultimately gave rise to the coal. Understanding these issues not only helps to unravel geological processes at that time, but it also gives a better understanding of the quality and distribution of the coal itself. These are important practical issues that can assist in exploiting the coal seams. It has been shown that knowing whether the ancient peat swamps were associated with, for example, ancient delta deposits versus ancient river deposits, effects the thickness, later distribution and to a degree, the quality of the coal seams. This research has been supported for a number of years by the coal mining industry, particularly Anglo Coal who has often provided postgraduate students and data for research. One such project involves Master’s student Byron
van der Walt who is researching anomalous stratigraphic formations in the northeastern Karoo basin coalfields. Another is the PhD project of consultant Peet Meyer who is researching the stratigraphy and structure of part of the Tete coalfield in Mozambique. The multimember COALTECH organisation that comprises most of the major coal mining companies in South Africa also financially supports this research from time to time. The geoheritage side of Professor Cairncross’ research involves researching and documenting the regions rich mineral and gemstone deposits.
Why publicize South Africa’s mineral heritage? It is non-renewable, it has scientific value (type-locality species, parageneses, geometallurgical value), it has beauty and diversity and mineral collections can be draw-cards at museums. Promoting geology, in general, to the public has always been a challenge because high school learners do not have formal courses in geology. There are some aspects of Earth Science in school curricula but these usually form part of other subjects. Therefore, any work that strives to present geology and minerals to the general public will raise public awareness, understanding and appreciation of South Africa’s geological and mineral wealth. Professor Cairncross has published six books and innumerable journal and magazine articles that are available to the general public. He is a regular invited speaker at local and international meetings and speaks to non-geological audiences on the subject of southern Africa’s rich mineral heritage. He is an internationally recognised mineral and gemstone photographer and his photos have featured in most print and electronic media. Two company sponsored books, one dealing with the minerals and geology of the Northern Cape manganese fields, were well received. More recently, three books on rocks, minerals and gemstones published by Struik Randomhouse, have sold very well to the public and two of these have been reprinted several times during the past 5-6 years.
Dr Michiel de Kock’s Paleomagnetic studies are used to trace the paths of drift of continents through time. Measurement of the magnetic directions in rocks enables us to determine the orientation and latitude of the rock mass at the time of its formation. It allows the reconstruction of the components of ancient continents, now fragmented by plate tectonics, and can also be used to date rock successions indirectly.
The lack of an accessible, modern palaeomagnetic facility in southern Africa served as motivation for the planning and construction of a magnetically shielded room, which can house such a facility. Recent acquisition of a computer controlled automated sample changer and a helium-free superconducting rock magnetometer now makes the UJ Palaeomagnetic Laboratory one of the most modern laboratories in the world and the only such facility on the African continent. The automatic sample changer, which allows for the rapid measurements of large
amounts of samples, is a first for the southern hemisphere.
Professor Axel Hofmann is a relatively new staff member in the Department of Geology. He joined in August 2010 to take up a position as Associate Professor. His main interests revolve around the geology of the Archaean era, the most ancient part of Earth history for which rocks as old as 4 billion years are preserved. Under the umbrella of the Palaeoproterozoic Mineralisation Research Group he is in the process of establishing a research project entitled Early Earth Life and Mineral Systems Science. This interdisciplinary study of biogeochemical
systems through time focuses on the impacts of the evolution of life on surface processes, geochemical cycles and the formation of mineral deposits using modern geochemical concepts and techniques.
The research of Mike Knoper is broadly focused on Earth’s lithosphere. The lithosphere is
the outer 100-150 km portion of Earth that consists of the crust and uppermost mantle. The lithosphere comprises a number of distinct tectonic plates, and it is possible to measure their movements on the surface of Earth using GPS technology. The interactions between these
lithospheric plates through geological time, together with processes originating from the underlying convecting mantle, result in numerous physical phenomena that may be studied
from a geological perspective. Such phenomena include development of new lithosphere, rifting of old lithosphere, mountain building, and the assembly and break-up of supercontinents. In the context of applied geology, Mike’s research of these phenomena will aid in the search for economic ore deposits.